Thoughts on Utopian Views of Technology

Reading seminar

Review n. 3, ISKM57 Reading Seminar: Educational Technology and Learning Society

This week’s reading was in the name of utopia and technology. I chose to read two texts from Andrew Freenberg, American philosopher of technology. Since both, Introduction from Questioning Technology (1999) and Introduction from Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity (2010), consider the same topic and very similar argumentation, I will comment on them jointly.

The core argument of Freenberg is that the technology is created in interaction between reason and experience. We need to know the laws of nature in order to create a functioning machine – this process we perceive as rational, following rules of science and logic. But what is often overlooked is that we need to experience the everyday life, the life within a certain social system, in order to create a technology helpful and meaningful to their users.

For example, if I want to build a bench, I certainly need to be skilled in carpentry, but I also need to know, how is it to sit on a bench, why do people usually do that, where the bench can be located and so on.

Freenberg argues that notion of technology as being created purely from reason is theological. God creates the world without experiencing it, from outside of its system. But we people are not gods. We belong in a certain social systems where our creative process is rooted. The technology we build impacts our surroundings and it is influenced by feedback from those, who are affected by it.

Capitalism omites this technological duality and fetishizes reason over meaning. It produces technology focused primarily on efficiency, which Freenberg finds very simplistic. He argues that the very design of technology necessarily embodies context of technology, such as vocations, ethics, aesthetics, authority and others.

In conclusion, technology and society are bound and cannot be understood in isolation. So far we are living in more of a dystopia. Nevertheless the utopian future of balanced technology which combines reason (device) and experience (meaning) slowly peeks through into our everyday life with the growing environmental movement and the everchanging Internet.

Overall, I liked Freenberg’s reasoning, but what I find a bit debatable is his critique of capitalism as a system, which focuses only on the reason – on the efficiency. Yes, but does it is therefore really exclude the context completely? Is it not most of the marketing strategies which aim to maximize the profit (ergo efficiency) using the context to their cause?

We could for sure debate, if the real taste, struggles and needs of people are heard or rather imposed artificially from above, but I would say that the producers in capitalistic systems are very well aware of the context of technologies they create. The important question is, what context is followed and which is not? What should be heard and addresses and what are the ways to achieve this?

I agree that technological development should go hand in hand with people’s need, not against it. It is important to recognize the context when producing something and also think about the possible impact. Questions like why, who for and how should always be included in the design process.

I encountered a peculiar example recently. In one learning management system you can create very nice pages with various content – embedded text, pictures, videos, links to repositories and many more. The graphic design is fresh and minimalistic, pretty easy to orient in, in my opinion. But there was one thing! There was no button for saving! How can I be sure that my progress is saved and does not get lost?

This illustrates quite nicely the importance of the context when it comes to creating a new technology. The users were probably used to create their content in older systems like Word, where the famous icon with floppy disk is always there to save their work. Missing icon for saving is contraintuitive, therefore even the best design seems confusing and does not make any sense to the user – it lacks meaning to them. It is also emotionally disturbing, because it does not provide the needed security as the previous system – it does not visibly confirm that the act of saving happened.

Feenberg, A. (2010). Between reason and experience: Essays in technology and
Mit Press.
Feenberg, A. (2012). Questioning technology. Routledge.

One thought on “Thoughts on Utopian Views of Technology

  1. Consider: What is rationality? Quite a big debate, which ended about Antonio Damasio (Descartes error) is that between emotions and rationality are no sharp boundary is not. Without emotion, rational thinking doesn’t work at all. This, however, casts a big shadow on how logical arguments are further structured. Rationality and emotions are not contradictions but a complement.

    Anna, you have an excellent text!

    Páči sa mi

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